Knowing about its relative privacy and the fact that Rye is the home of the prestigious President’s Putter competition in January between the golfers of Oxford and Cambridge Universities, I knew that this was a fairly aristocratic place. And I’m pretty sure that I was right about that. But it didn’t mean what I thought it meant. When Americans hear the term ‘aristocratic,’ they think that the place will be posh, opulent. No one would describe Rye with those terms. While almost all British clubhouses are small, this was was particularly modest in its furnishings—although still quite comfortable, especially the bar and lounge with its wonderful assortment of golf books.
And the customs seemed to be an odd fit given the surroundings. A jacket is required in the clubhouse until after 4 PM—again, jacket-required is something that I associate with posh, decidedly not-relaxed restaurants and the Rye clubhouse didn’t feel like any jacket-required restaurants that I’ve been to. I had heard that there’s a certain relaxed modesty associated with aristocracy in the UK but it’s different to hear about something and experience. Without getting into the details, I also had an interaction where the answer to a question of mine was ‘no’ but as I’ve experienced interacting with similar types since, ‘no’ is not part of the Oxbridge vocabulary, substituted with any of a variety of more complicated euphemisms.
There’s another aspect of the club’s culture which was foreign to me but which I wholeheartedly endorse (not that I minded any of the above): here you play as at most a two-ball and you play in 3 hr. 15 min. or less. Any more than two balls requires special permission with which I imagine they aren’t too liberal.
So how about the course? Along with Royal St. George’s, this was the course that I was most interested in seeing. And it didn’t disappoint—this is a great golf course with several holes that must belong on a list of best links holes. The par 3s are justifiably famous—and also earn their notorious reputation that “the hardest shots are Rye are the second shots on the par 3s” (it sounds like a joke—it isn’t).
But Tom Doak certainly wasn’t kidding when he called this one of the toughest courses that he had seen relative to par. Like many of the best English courses, Rye is less-than par 70 (par 68)—but this just means that all of the long holes are par 4s, even if a few of them are almost long enough to be par 5s. In fact the one par 5—the first hole—is only about 485 and now could just be called a par 4. Given that several of the holes on the front nine play along narrow dune ridges and that there often isn’t a lot of room to play, I’m hard-pressed to think of a course that’s harder. I played this course in early May when the ground was only just starting to firm up and the wind at worst got up to about 10-15 mph. It was plenty hard enough under those ideal conditions. I couldn’t imagine playing it with burnt-out summer fairways or in a cold January wind with the Oxbridge crowd.
So long as they continue to call it a par 5, the first hole is probably the easiest at Rye. It’s not friendly to slicers with the dune ridge up the right side but there’s no real trouble between the tee and the green. I thought that the green had a lot of wonderful little contours and was slightly convex, with tricky (but not hard) little shots all around.
In short, this hole has some real merits but was a bit too severe to be one of my favorites. Maybe I’d get more comfortable with it if I played it again.
This hole is a really strong competitor with the fourth in terms of difficulty. If you miss the aiming pole right, you have an extremely long second and may have a difficult time figuring out where to even search for your ball… But like the fourth, the approach into the green and the green itself are beautiful although in this case quite narrow with double bunkers on both sides of the approach.
But incongruent aesthetics aside, it’s a good hole. A longer can get close to the green (~300 yards out) if they challenge the water. If you bail out too far left, you can run through the fairway into gorse. The green is large and not particularly interesting but while it maybe doesn’t fit with the rest of this course, it’s an excellent driving hole.
We drive over the corner of the twelfth green. It’s a diagonal drive from short-right to long-left over low dunes and long grass. While there’s plenty of room right, you want to be up the left side to shorten the approach…which is really important because no matter what you do, it’s completely blind. There’s also an odd rise (I think a buried pipe) that crosses the fairway at a short-left to long-right diagonal and while it’s only about a 195 yard carry up the left side, it’s 230 if you go right.
But I thought that there was a subtle brilliance to this hole. There’s something of a diagonal ridge from short-left to long-right in front of the green. If you pull your tee shot, this will likely deflect it into one of the green side bunkers. But if you play your shot at the right side of the green, it will feed the ball into the middle of the green. It’s almost the complete opposite of the other par 3s which are all very target-oriented…but all the better for it.
But I love an English eccentric. And as we saw with the last few holes, it isn’t all like that. There’s tremendous variety here and while the front nine is downright severe at times, the back nine opens up a bit and gives you an opportunity to play some different kinds of shots (especially if you’re missing greens). The closing stretch is about as pure of links golf as you could want. In fact, I probably like the back nine almost as much as the more famous front nine. And it’d be a lot easier to play in difficult conditions.
Rye also has a relief nine, the Jubilee Course, that consists of about 12 holes with a standard 9-hole loop but then a few fairways and greens in the center where to play to from. Unless we consider the third nine at St. George’s Hill to be a relief nine, this is easily the strongest of the relief courses that I played in the UK (I preferred it to the less consistent Channel Course at Burnham and Berrow). Interestingly this course is only a few decades old because when the main course was built, this land was marsh. In contrast to many other places around the UK, the sea has been receding in this area and has left an area of land almost as big as the main course.
Although the fairways are much flatter and the course lacks the nuance of its older brother, there’s a lot of good design work out here and some interesting holes. The shaping of the second green and its bunkering reminded me of the last few holes on the big course. The fourth is a beauty, curving around the dunes that separate it from the front nine on the big course and playing to a green nestled into the dunes. This green would be a welcome addition on the big course.